The clipless diaries, part 10: Forefoot woes

During the return half of the 7-Eleven Tour 2019 SCTEX race, I was demonstrably slower than the first half by roughly half an hour. The heat and incline certainly contributed to that, but I estimate fifteen minutes of that was all down to the pain on the outside edges of the soles of my feet, which slowly developed with each pedal stroke and inhibited me from putting out as much power as I could.

Approaching the finish line of the 2019 7-Eleven Tour at SCTEX, wearing the offending Shimano XC5 shoes.

I got the Shimano XC5 shoes to address what felt like the Shimano MT5s‘ apparent inability to keep their sole stiffness on a prolonged ride, resulting in pain. Yet here I was, wearing the XC5s, and my feet were still in pain. What gives?

Studying where along my foot the pain was located, and attempting to correlate it to the shoe, gave me some insights.

Apparently, the pain in both my feet was coming from the forefoot region, which to me is misleading terminology. From the word structure, you’d think the name “forefoot” was just your toes and the balls of your feet, but in reality the forefoot takes up almost half your foot’s total area.

Bones of a typical right foot.
Image credit: HSS.

It seems it is called the “forefoot” because of how the bones are structured to make up our feet. From what I understand, everything from your toes, to the balls of your foot, all the way to the long metatarsal bones that start making up the arch of your foot – all of those make up the forefoot. My pain was in the lateral metatarsal bones, which is a fancy, specific way of saying it was in the outside edges of my feet.

This also plays into a phenomenon called forefoot varus. From what I can tell, this simply refers to the natural tendency of the foot to angle slightly upward on the inside, such that more of a person’s body weight tends to rest on the lateral metatarsal bones. Many people have varying degrees of forefoot varus; my understanding is that people with perfectly straight forefeet aren’t all that common.

While pedaling, it is this forefoot varus that eventually leads to the foot getting loaded up on the lateral metatarsal bones, or outside edge of the forefoot. Ideally then, this varus is compensated for by your cycling shoes. Unfortunately, not all shoes are created the same, and certainly not all of them provide the same amount of lateral metatarsal support.

The easiest way of checking, I’ve found, is to look at the shoe’s outsole. As I have Shimano’s XC5, MT5, and the old RT33s, we can make a few comparisons between the three shoe models.

L-R: XC5, MT5, RT33

The XC5 outsoles are pretty narrow, tapering to an hourglass shape in their middle. While the XC5’s carbon-reinforced sole is quite stiff, because of the shape, there isn’t much of that stiffness supporting the lateral forefoot. Quite a bit of lateral forefoot “spills over” the sides of the outsole, measuring 5 cm wide at its narrowest.

After stopping for four minutes, I found the pain subsided enough for me to complete the remaining 10 kilometers of the 7-Eleven Tour 2019 SCTEX. There is something about the motion of walking and standing on the ground that relieves the lateral forefoot pressure, at least for me.

I’ve successfully completed a 210 km audax in the RT33s, and they are 6 cm wide at their narrowest. At the end of the distance, I remember the pain coming more around the balls of my feet, as the bones felt like they wanted to contort themselves around the small SPD cleat. Lateral forefoot pain was not a problem at all, though, as 6 cm of width is enough to sufficiently support my metatarsals.

If I was in the market for new cycling shoes, then, I would have to look at them having at least this amount of width.

The MT5s have the most generous outsole width of the three pairs of shoes, at 7 cm wide at their narrowest. Again, in my experience, I didn’t have lateral forefoot pain with these, but their relative lack of stiffness also isn’t ideal for my riding, and that factor would accelerate the same “contorting around the cleat” phenomenon my feet exhibit on longer rides.

Interesting findings, then. Now that I know the pitfalls of the XC5s, though, save for replacing the shoe wholesale, I wonder what can be done in order to address their shortcomings?

L-R: RT33, MT5, XC5

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